CLOSE
Getty
Getty

What Happens When You Send a Letter to Santa Claus?

Getty
Getty

Yes, Virginia, Santa does read his mail. 

Every year, millions of kids around the globe communicate with Jolly Old St. Nick the old-fashioned way: Pen (or crayon) and paper. The top three countries that generate snail mail to Santa send more than 4 million letters annually: CNN estimates that 1.7 million come from France, 1.35 million are sent from Canada, and more than a million letters are written in the U.S. (The United States Postal Service doesn’t have an exact number, but says the number of letters to Santa from American kids is “easily in the millions.)

That’s a lot of correspondence. So what happens to all of it? Well, as with any other piece of mail, it depends on how the letter was addressed.

In 1912, the U.S. Postmaster General gave local postmasters the authority to allow employees and citizens to answer letters addressed to Santa. It eventually became known as Operation Santa, and today, multiple locations across the U.S. participate in the program to help deliver gifts to needy children. Those who want to play elf for the season can drop by any one of them and select a letter (or letters) to Santa to fulfill. If you don’t have a participating post office in your area, you can volunteer to start an Operation Santa in your city or donate to an existing location.

The USPS has another program called Letters to Santa, which guarantees children a response from the North Pole, but no presents. Parents mail their children’s letters to the “North Pole Postmark Postmaster,” along with Santa’s response and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The North Pole Postmark Postmaster will return the letter to the child with a special postmark from Santa.

The U.S. isn’t alone in its Yuletide philanthropy—there are similar Santa programs around the globe. The Royal Mail makes sure kids who send letters to Mr. Claus receive a response, as does the Canada Post, which even gives the big guy the custom postal code “H0H 0H0.” Brazil has Papai Noel dos Correios, a program similar to Operation Santa. And in France, any child who writes to Le Père Noël will receive a response from a post office dedicated specifically to the cause. In fact, since 1962, receiving a response from Le Père Noël is actually guaranteed by law, bringing new meaning to that whole "naughty or nice" thing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
iStock
iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios